Ziyad Rushdi al-Nakhalah, Secretary-General of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), is the only man who can stop the current wave of fighting between Israel and PIJ, Palestinian sources in the Gaza Strip said on Wednesday. There’s only one problem: he needs a green light from Iran.
The 66-year-old al-Nakhalah, who spends most of his time moving between Lebanon and Syria, will order his men to stop the rocket attacks on Israel only if Iran allows him to do so, the sources said, noting that the PIJ leader has “excellent and strong” relations with Iran and its Lebanese, Hezbollah.
Shortly after the targeted killing by Israel of PIJ military commander Bahaa Abu al-Ata on Tuesday, al-Nakhalah, who is fluent in Hebrew (a language he learned during the time he spent in Israeli prison), declared that his group was “going to war” with Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said, has “crossed all red lines.”
According to the sources, al-Nakhalah was the one who issued orders to PIJ’s military wing, Al-Quds Brigades, to start firing rockets at Israel in retaliation over the assassination of al-Ata. “Al-Nakhalah is the only one who can order his men to halt the rocket attacks,” the sources added. “But he’s unlikely to do so unless he receives a green light from Tehran.”
Other sources in the Gaza Strip said that Egyptian intelligence officials contacted al-Nakhalah on Tuesday night in the context of their effort to reach a ceasefire between PIJ and Israel. The PIJ leaders, the sources said, told the Egyptians that it was premature to talk about a ceasefire “when the blood of the martyrs has not dried yet.”
The sources predicted that al-Nakhalah will eventually accept an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, but only if it appears as if Israel had “begged” for one.
“The assassination of al-Ata is a severe blow to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and its leader, al-Nakhalah,” the sources said. “That’s why they want to show the Palestinian public that they made Israel pay a heavy price for its crime.”
Moreover, al-Nakhalah sees the current round of fighting with Israel as an opportunity to strengthen PIJ’s standing among Palestinians. PIJ is the second largest group in the Gaza Strip after Hamas. Although the number of its members is much smaller than those of Hamas, PIJ is believed to be in possession of the same arsenal of weapons as Hamas.
As of Wednesday noon, Hamas was still sitting on the fence, leaving PIJ alone in its military confrontation with Israel.
Hamas is reluctant to join the fighting because it does not want to give Israel an excuse to “expand its aggression on the Gaza Strip,” sources close to Hamas explained. “For now, Hamas’ response has been limited to paying lip service to PIJ and its heroic sacrifices. If the Egyptians succeed in convincing al-Nakhalah to agree to a ceasefire, Hamas will be the first to welcome it. If, however, Israel escalates its attacks and starts targeting Hamas, Hamas will have no other choice but to respond.”
Who is al-Nakhalah, who holds the key to ending the current round of fighting with Israel?
Born in the city of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip in 1953, the father of six was first arrested by Israel in 1971 for his membership in the Arab Liberation Forces, a terror group headed by Ziad al-Husseini. He was sentenced to life in prison, but was released in a prisoner exchange agreement with Israel in 1985.
Al-Nakhalah’s father, Rushdi, was killed during the joint Israeli-British-French attack on Egypt in response to the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956. The Gaza Strip was back then under Egyptian control.
Upon his release from Israeli prison, then PIJ Secretary-General Fathi Shikaki tasked al-Nakhalah with establishing the group’s first military wing in the Gaza Strip.
Al-Nakhalah was again arrested by Israel in April 1988, a few months after the eruption of the First Intifada. In August that year, he was deported to Lebanon, where he was appointed as PIJ’s unofficial envoy to Beirut.
After the assassination of Shikaki in October 1995 in Malta, PIJ’s shura (advisory) council, elected Ramadan Abdallah Shalah as its leader. The council elected al-Nakhalah as deputy secretary-general of PIJ.
In 2014, al-Nakhalah led his group’s delegation to the negotiations with the Egyptians that ended Israel’s seven-week Operation Protective Edge military offensive in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The operation came after Hamas launched fired rockets into Israel.
During the operation, Israel destroyed al-Nakhalah’s house in the Gaza Strip, killing his brother’s wife, Um Nidal, and her son, Mahmoud.
In the same year, the US Department of State designated al-Nakhalah as a Global Terrorist and froze his property and interests in the US. The US also offered a $5-million award for information leading to his capture.
The US move, nonetheless, did not stop al-Nakhalah from ascending to the helm of PIJ. In April 2018, he was elected as secretary-general of the terror group, succeeding Shalah who suffered a massive stroke and has since been hospitalized in Lebanon.
While relations between Hamas and Iran have witnessed tensions as a result of the movement’s refusal to support Tehran’s ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad after the eruption of the civil war in Syria, al-Nakhalah and PIJ have continued to maintain close ties with Iranian leaders.
Al-Nakhalah is also believed to be closely associated with Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Quds Force. According to some reports, Soleimani is in charge of providing PIJ and Hamas with financial and military aid.
“Al-Nakhalah is the Palestinian Hassan Nasrallah,” said a Palestinian political analyst from the Gaza Strip, referring to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah secretary-general. “He and Nasrallah will never do anything without Iran’s approval. They know that their survival depends on Iran’s money and weapons.”
Despite his close relations with Iran and Hezbollah, the PIJ leader has also kept communication channels open with Egypt. Unlike Iran, the Egyptians are keen on preserving the ceasefire understandings reached earlier this year between the Gaza-based Palestinian groups and Israel.
Al-Nakhalah is aware that PIJ can’t ignore Egypt’s national and security interests in the region. Saying no to Cairo’s mediation efforts can result in severe Egyptian sanctions on his group, including banning PIJ members and officials from leaving the Gaza Strip.
Furthermore, al-Nakhalah knows that Hamas has informed the Egyptians in the past 24 hours that it’s not interested in an all-out war with Israel. That’s why the PIJ leader now has to find a way to convince his patrons in Tehran to agree to a new ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.
Source » jpost